Should Creative Writing PhD students publish an anthology?

It’s the new term at Goldsmiths. It feels like it’s a bit of Indian summer with the sun shining over the New Cross campus.

Main Building, Goldsmiths College

Main Building, Goldsmiths College (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a large “Fresher‘s” marquee on the lawn, and lots of “freshers” milling around carry leaflets and freebies. I remember the first year I started the PhD at Goldsmiths in 2009; it was weird coming back to university after a 20 year hiatus. I felt a huge feeling of hope seeing all these people devoting themselves to the life of the mind. There was, and still is, an atmosphere of relatively unselfconscious hedonism and sociability at Goldsmiths which possibly you don’t get at more “august” institutions like Oxbridge. People are not putting on “airs” here.

There was a meeting for new PhD Creative Writing students and we were introduced to the new Creative Writing tutors, Adam Mars-Jones and Naomi Wood. Adam told a funny story about how he received a grant to do a PhD from an institution situated in Honeypot Lane;  he failed to complete the PhD on William Faulkner but wrote a lot of fiction instead. New students — and more seasoned ones such as myself — talked about their projects and research interests.

Professor Blake Morrison talked about the opportunities available for Creative Writing PhD on campus. The Writer’s Centre is hosting a number of readings which are not up on the website yet, but should be very soon.

The conversation turned to how Creative PhD students can have more of a collective voice and more chance to publish their own work through the aegis of the university. A few people said that it might be good to have a magazine or anthology of writing from the course. At Birkbeck, they run an “online magazine” called The Writer’s Hub. Check it out, it’s a really good forum for established writers on the course to publish their work. The Royal Holloway, Warwick, and UEA Creative Writing course publish anthologies, as does the MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths. And yet nothing for the PhD students? Why is this? Perhaps it’s because the institution feels that most writers on the course have established enough of a reputation to stand on their own two feet, and don’t need the “support” of an official publication. Or possibly it’s because that generally these anthologies don’t get much attention beyond the institution — although this was contradicted by a few people who said that agents take a keen interest in such anthologies. Or perhaps it’s because that no one has the time or money to collate/edit/design/publish such a thing.

All of these are valid reasons, and yet I got the sense from the new intake that there was a real energy for some kind of publication. Writers always need more publicity. They can never get enough. What do other people think? If you’re keen, what form should such a publication take? Who should edit/run it? If you’re not keen, then why not?

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I cried after my first creative writing tutorial…

Malcolm Bradbury

Malcolm Bradbury (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was remembering back the other day to the time when I endured my first creative writing tutorial back in October 1990. I was very proud of myself because I’d got on the prestigious MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, which was taught, for the most part, by Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. It was more or less the first course of its kind and had been running for nearly a decade so it was in the unique position of having established a reputation — producing Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro — but also being more or less the only kid on the block; both established and trendily cool as well.

Bradbury set up a system which involved students workshopping their work. That year, there were about 12 of us, some of whom were established writers already and others like me who hadn’t published anything but got on the course on the strength of their portfolios. Every week, two students’ fiction would be photocopied and disseminated to everyone else the week before the tutorial to read. Then in the tutorial, held in a bleak room on the UEA campus, we’d sit around in swivel chairs and say what we thought of the fiction before us.

I was one of the first to have my work examined. It felt like being in front of a firing squad. Quite a few of the other students were critical of what I’d done. I was only 22, and I’d written a John Wyndam-esque (if I’m kind!) story about a grandmother who is impregnated by an alien and gives birth to a monster in a remote northern village; this leads to all the villagers, except the heroine doctor, becoming alien heathens who try and sacrifice the doctor on a ritualistic bonfire. Bradbury wasn’t impressed and dismissed the piece as “teenage fiction” — which at that point, pre-Harry Potter, was quite a put down. He barely spent a few minutes discussing the work and had deliberately spent most of the tutorial extolling the virtues of the previous examined piece written by one Erica Wagner, who I would, some years later, get married to!

I ran away after the tutorial and cried by the UEA lake, feeling that my whole writing career was over. It was pointless carrying on! I’d been criticised by the all-knowing deity of creative writing, Malcolm Bradbury!

Reflecting on this experience over twenty years later, I realise that it did demoralise me quite a bit. I found that after that I was writing to PLEASE my tutors; writing what they wanted to read, rather than what I actually wanted to write. I’m not sure this helped me find my voice. I think it’s no coincidence that I had to wait many years before I was actually published in 2004. Yet, this said, those years of failure made me feel quite humble about my writing; I’ve seen people who have had early success suffer because they haven’t had the room to experiment and fail.

This said, I think creative writing courses could be places where there is room to experiment, where you feel “freed from the market”. And often, they can be the opposite sort of places, where there’s an intense competition to be successful rather than pursuing your own interests.

English: Ian McEwan, a british writer, photogr...

English: Ian McEwan, a british writer, photographed during the 2001 Paris book festival. Français : L’écrivain britannique Ian McEwan, photographié au salon du livre de Paris 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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The two cultures?

Recently I went to a conference about the past, present and potential future of English Studies in higher education.  There were several very interesting and thought-provoking papers and, on the whole, I enjoyed the day.

But during the actual conference proceedings, creative writing was only mentioned twice, both times in brief asides, rather than as the subject of an actual paper or discussion.  (This was probably not the fault of the conference organisers.  It is quite possible that no creative writers responded to the call for papers.)

One of these asides was a comment that the rise of creative writing might be selling students short and that creative writing courses could be seen as a soft option.  A rather lowering reminder of the way that (some) others in university English departments apparently see us.  But we provide you with your raw material, I thought, where would you be without us?  And then I remembered that novels and poems are not necessarily their main or only raw material, thanks to Barthes, Derrida and others.  (By the way, the speaker was not from Goldsmiths or from any of the other institutions with well-established creative writing programmes.)

The second, more positive comment (made by the same speaker) came towards the end of the day and was to the effect that perhaps one reason why students were turning to creative writing in such large numbers was that it met some kind of need (to engage directly with literature?) that was not being satisfied by the study of literary theory.

There is a tension, sometimes, between the creative and the critical/academic side of English studies.  This tension has certainly run through much of my own writing life and might be one of the reasons that most of us feel anxious about our critical projects.  But could it ever become an energising or productive tension?  Is it still possible to engage properly with both creative writing and academic literary criticism (as Bradbury and Lodge and Byatt, for example, have done) or has the prevalence of literary theory largely put a stop to that?

If there is a line between creative writing and the critical/theoretical side of English studies, how blurred (or permeable) is that line, at the moment?

There is, of course, some important common ground: we are all readers, and we read in many different ways.

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Should Creative Writers be called “Practice-led Researchers”?!

I had a hilarious conversation recently with a bemused lecturer in Creative Writing who was puzzled because his the Arts and Humanities Research Council has decided to “re-designate” lecturers in creative writing as “practice-led” or “practice-based researchers“. “Practice based research” is a NATIONAL term arrived at by the AHRC to describe the activities of people in academia who write for print, stage and screen, or who dance or perform in some way.

He was, in part, irritated because the ARHC — and other relevant authorities — appear to have taken this decision without much consultation with creative writers — although, since I’m not particularly in the ARHC loop, I can’t say this for sure. A brief search of the internet suggests not many creative writers have been asked. So to get funding now if you are a creative writer, you need to say you are a “practice-led researcher”. This ARHC publication shows this quite clearly I think.

A key quote is this:

“By ‘creative and performing arts’ the AHRC is referring to subject areas concerned
with practice-based visual arts, music and performing arts, and practice-led creative
writing. This list is not exhaustive but could include applicants who are visual artists;
architects; those working in the applied arts; fashion; curatorial practice or film,
video and/or other multi-media; performers; musicians; choreographers;
scenographers; theatre or film directors; designers, and creative writers and poets.”

The document is worth reading because it indicates that there are funding opportunities for creative writers, but they are clearly wanting to fund writers with academic interests. The document says:

“If the focus of your research is creative writing, your research should bring about
enhancements in knowledge and understanding in the discipline, or in related
disciplinary areas.  If it would ordinarily be identified as work of a literary-critical or literary-historical  nature, your project will not be eligible for support under RGPLA, as it is likely to fall  under the remit of the British Academy’s Small Research Grants scheme. Historical and theoretical approaches to humanities research for less than £20,000 FEC are also supported by the British Academy.”

I think it is a big mistake to redesignate creative writers as “practice-based” or “practice-led”. I have a hunch that creative writing courses are, in part, popular because they lie outside the traditional academic realm; they are perceived by students to be a bit subversive, to be a bit “whacky”, to be rebellious. If one was going to do a Foucaultian analysis of them, you could begin to speculate that they part of a “resistance” against the hegemony of academic discourse; you don’t need to provide loads of evidence to back up your points, you don’t have to read loads, you can just put pen to paper and “express yourself”. This is very much against the tenets of traditional academic discourse. By labelling a creative writer a “practice-led researcher”, you are very consciously bringing creative writing into the academic fold; you are saying that a writer is “researching” while he/she is writing, that his/her writing is essentially “research”. In other words, being a “researcher” is at the heart of a creative writer’s identity; is this correct? Surely creative writers are primarily “creators”; don’t we construct worlds/characters/situations/atmospheres/thoughts out of words? By getting rid of the “creative” label, aren’t you killing off the whole discipline?

Here’s a paper by art and design artists (practice-based researchers!) who express similar concerns.

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Lots of exciting ideas about developing the Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre!

I’ve just got back from a really exciting meeting with the director of the Writers’ Centre, Blake Morrison, who is keen to make the Goldsmiths’ Writers’ Centre a showcase for PhD students.

At the moment, the Writers’ Centre administers the Goldsmiths Fiction Prize and has hosted a number of writers’ readings, but it’s clear it could do a lot more. Some of the ideas raised were:

  • An “official” webpage/post for PhD students, with biographies/outline of work on them, and relevant contact details so that people both in and outside the university can see what work is being done, and collaborate/contact if necessary.
  • Encourage PhD students to offer short teaching courses on topics they specialise in, eg aspects of Life Writing, Poetry, Fiction. These courses could be open to those both in and outside the university, and would be funded by charging the relevant fee. This is something the Music Department does at Goldsmiths, but the Writers’ Centre could offer this too. Obviously, it would require admin support from the university as well. I’ve already spoken to “outsiders” who would be interested in signing up for short courses like this. They could be very popular.
  • PhD students could offer workshops to each other. I’ve talked about this in a previous post, but it definitely something worth considering. There is so much expertise on the course, which could be better shared and publicised.
  • A creative writing journal could be published a bit like the one that Warwick University does: the Warwick Review.
  • There’s also moves afoot to have a conference on “Representations of Sex in the 21st century” — possibly called “Sex Lit”; something that Season Butler and Seraphima Kennedy have amazing ideas for, which I hope they share with us soon (hint, hint!). The aim is to run the conference in Spring/Summer 2014. Blake felt that the Writers’ Centre would be keen to support this. Anyone interested in getting involved get in touch: we’re looking for writers who write about sex, academics who have examined representations of sex in literature, and other artists/academics who have other ideas, eg performers who perform it (only joking).

There’s a “closed” FaceBook group for people who want to discuss things more privately, ie not on this public blog…

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Creative Writing and teaching…why aren’t we teaching ourselves??

OK, let’s get down to the real nitty-gritty; let’s face it, many Creative Writing PhD students would be interested in getting a teaching post at an academic institution teaching Creative Writing? Yes, no? I myself have toyed with the idea…(I still feel a bit ambivalent about it). I’ve done a little bit of teaching at Goldsmiths on a second year undergraduate Creative Writing course. I got this gig because I was a bit pushy, talked Ardu who I knew way before doing the course quite coincidentally and he was kind enough to give me a shot.

This said, it strikes me that there was no transparent path for me to do this. I think the department are changing this now; I think formal applications are going to be required from now on, although I’m not sure…

The big problem is that many PhDs who would be excellent at teaching Creative Writing simply don’t have enough teaching experience to even get an interview at many universities because they’re up against people who have been doing it for years. So the big Catch 22 question is: how do you get experience? You can’t get it by applying for a job, and informal avenues for getting work are shutting down as well…

Then it suddenly struck me! Why aren’t we teaching ourselves? On the applications I’ve looked at, it seems to require or want experience of teaching post-graduates. Well, this would be easy enough to set up if people were helping each other? The fact is that there is a huge wealth of experience amongst the PhD in creative writing students and we could all benefit probably from being taught by each other on certain key areas.

This makes me think of another key point about the course: maybe encouraging/fostering more of a collegiate approach might help us figure out WHAT actually needs to be taught; what are the “foundations” of a Creative Writing PhD? I want to do another blog on this, but briefly here it strikes me that there are some KEY areas that any PhD in Creative Writing should cover possibly in the first and second years in the way that happens in Education/Sociology/Music/Art. Things that come to mind are:

Narrative — what are the basic building blocks of a good story?

Characterisation — how does one write good characters?

Descriptive writing

Dialogue

Genres

Poetry: rhythm, rhyme, form, content

Life writing: truth/fiction, informative writing

Now I know this may well have been covered on the MA, but I think a PhD should be taking these things a step further. And what better place to start than ourselves? We’re the educational apogee for all of this stuff? Why aren’t we saying that more? Why are we giving ourselves a chance to get ahead??

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Why do so many PhD students get anxious about the commentary?

At just about at every PhD in Creative Writing seminar I’ve attended, someone shows some kind of anxiety about the commentary that has to accompany the PhD. This is the 30,000 piece that has to be “academic” in some shape or form, and accompanies the 70,000 word creative piece — if you’re writing a novel/life writing etc. Poets obviously have a much smaller word count…

It’s worth looking at the formal wording about the commentary from the University of London guidelines. This is the complete paragraph written about the Creative Writing PhD as a whole:

“Doctoral students for the PhD in Creative Writing combine their own creative writing with research into the genre or area of literature in which they were working, to gain insight into its history, development and contemporary practices. (This might be genre in the more traditional sense, for example, satire, fictional autobiography, verse drama, or particular traditions to which they felt their work related, for example, projective verse, postmodernist fiction, Caribbean poetics.) They would be expected to engage with relevant contemporary debates about theory and practice.

With regard to the examination, this comprises:

(i) Up to 70,000 words of creative work for a PhD or 40,000 for an MPhil.

(ii) A critical commentary on the work, relating it to past and present practice and to theoretical concerns, of up to 30,000 words for a PhD, or 20,000 for an MPhil.

Students register initially for the degree of MPhil and are considered for transfer to PhD at a point agreed with the supervisor.  For the upgrade students are asked to submit an outline of the overall project; a synopsis of or extract from the critical commentary, of 1,500-3,000 words; a sample chapter of the creative text, of at least 10,000 words; and a timetable for completion.”

This is the FORMAL WORDING of this:

          “In the field of English, a candidate may register to undertake research leading to a thesis submitted in accordance with the normal provisions. Alternatively, a candidate may submit, as part of a thesis, an original literary text written specifically for the degree. This text should show coherence and originality and attain a publishable standard, as determined by the examiners, which will include those qualified in academic research as well as the professional practice of writing. This text shall form the basis for a commentary on its structure, its use of dramatic, narrative or poetic technique, its relation to other literary works, and an exposition of the aims and concerns that lay behind its composition. The commentary should make clear that the candidate is well acquainted with the history and contemporary developments of the genre in which he or she is working in the creative portion of the thesis, and the critical field associated with it, and is able independently to analyse, interpret and evaluate debates and theoretical positions associated with it.”

I suppose this is reasonably clear IF you decide to comment at length on how you came to write the creative part of your PhD. However, if like me, you’re doing research which leads you beyond the narrow parameters of commenting upon your own work, the guidelines are not that clear. Most PhD students I’ve talked to are NOT commenting at length upon their own work, but doing some research in a field connected to their creative work. This is where the anxiety is created; there are no proper guidelines about WHAT should be in a commentary of this sort. Is this a good thing? With more stringent guidelines, you might be tied to writing something you don’t want to write. On the other hand, with clearer guidelines, you might feel a bit more confident about what was/is expected. For example, should it be made clear that you need to write in an academic style for the commentary? In the ECL department, PhD students obviously have to write in a very academic fashion, but is this necessary for the Creative Writing PhD?

Emma Darwin, one of the first Creative Writing PhD students, has written an interesting blog about this here.

What do other people think? Do we need to lobby for clearer guidelines? Or not??

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